It has been announced today that the Virginian-Pilot and all of its subsequent affiliates, including Richmond’s Style Weekly, have been acquired by Chicago’s Tronc Inc. Tronc, once known as Tribune Publishing, currently owns the Baltimore Sun, Hartford Current, Orlando Sentinel, Sun-Sentinel, Hoy, Naperville Sun, El Sentinel del Sur de la Florida – along with a roster of smaller local papers – and until very recently the Los Angeles Times. The purchase of Landmark Media Enterprises, the parent company of the Virginian-Pilot was for $34 million and also included their brick and mortar location in Norfolk and their printing press in Virginia Beach.
In a statement about the acquisition, Tronc said: “The inclusion of The Virginian-Pilot further strengthens our presence in the region and renews our commitment to our longstanding tradition of journalistic excellence.” The Virginian-Pilot is 153 years old and one of the Commonwealth’s most regarded papers which has been locally owned for much of its existence. In a statement confirming the sale, Rusty Friddell, the general counsel for Landmark Media stated, “In order to most effectively continue its important work, The Virginian-Pilot must have the benefit of the resources of a large organization…Tronc brings the scale and commitment to best serve our important mission.”
The announcement of the sale of the Virginian-Pilot follows a nationwide trend of corporate media purchasing independent regional media platforms. Tronc, much like Sinclair Broadcasting – who in April of this year, made their broadcast affiliates across the US recite the same script regardless of location – represents a shift away from journalism as a mechanism for public accountability – and into a business model that prioritizes profits over news delivery as a public service. This represents a dangerous trend at a time when the press has come under attack by the president and politicians as “fake news” and the digital delivery of news content connected to un-intelligible social media algorithms that prioritize click-bait headlines.
Virginia will now enter into a 21st Century media landscape where the purchase of the Commonwealth’s largest daily newspaper will be guided by a media conglomerate with a track record of consolidating papers, layoffs, and reducing resources for journalists.
This has played out against Tronc during their short ownership of the Los Angeles Times – firing their editor-in-chief – along with a dozen other employees in April of this year. Tronc’s acquisitions have also seen the shuddering of major alternative-weeklies such as the New Haven Advocate and Baltimore City Paper. As an alternative-weekly, RVA Mag reached out to Style Weekly to see how this might impact their news operation. Publisher Lori Waran replied by saying, “Style Weekly is honored to have been a part of the Batten family’s storied portfolio of media and journals. We look forward to exciting days ahead with our new owners.”
The reality of these acquisitions tells another story, however. The consolidation of media platforms and the shuttering of alternative-weeklies has led to a modern phenomenon known as “news deserts.” Saving Community Journalism, a watchdog group out of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism has analyzed this extensively in a report called The Emerging Threat of News Deserts. Among other things, the report highlighted, “Some new media barons — New Media/ GateHouse, Digital First, tronc and 10/13 Communications — have also implemented aggressive digital strategies, aimed at capturing new readers and at opening a wider revenue stream.”
The report went on to say that this new strategy is all about chasing “clicks” and “audiences” to “appeal to local advertisers, their cookie-cutter newspaper websites, and social media postings supply pithy and entertaining features for ‘sharing,’ ‘listicles’ and the sort of videos ubiquitous on the internet.”
All of which has an inverse impact on everything from local and state politics to public transparency where prioritizing feature stories from under-reported communities, tenacious investigative reporting, and provocative opinion pieces get downgraded for wire content and media that is easily produced for digital consumption. Virginia is currently home to 33 papers that are owned by external investment firms, seven of which now own 14 percent of all papers in the US. The Emerging Threat of News Deserts report has highlighted the business strategy of spreading the investment risk across multiple locations giving investment firms like Tronc the ability to “pursue a harvesting strategy in which they ‘manage the decline’ of assets in their portfolio.”
It’s not for nothing that City Lab summed up this conundrum in August last year when they talked about the “great alt-weekly die off” in smaller markets where “rival daily newspapers became one, or none.” Indeed this will now play out with Richmond’s Style Weekly and how collaborations between The Daily Press in Hampton – already owned by Tronc – and the Virginian-Pilot, now owned by Tronc are managed going forward.
How this impacts the media landscape in Virginia remains to be seen, but it is not hard to imagine the scenario after watching Tronc’s employee video. Anne Vasquez, the Chief Digital Officer, explains their media and business model.”One of the key ways we are going to harness the power of our journalism is to have an optimization group. This Tronc team will work with all the local markets to harness the power of our local journalism, feed it into a funnel, and then optimize so we reach the largest global market possible.”
Nothing says local journalism more than feeding it into a funnel to be optimized by “machine learning” and “artificial intelligence”.
Nonetheless, the sale of the Virginian-Pilot and its assets will have an outsized impact on the media landscape in Virginia. In a move not dissimilar from how Tronc has been known to operate, Virginian-Pilot journalist Jordan Pascale took to Twitter this morning to comment on the acquisition saying that the internal announcement was made via email at 9 am this morning. That tweet was preceded by another saying, “I’m legit shocked. We don’t have an email. There were no murmurs or rumors. We’ve been on the selling block for nearly a decade.”